Test your knowledge about some of the approaches to workplace mental health issues found within this website.
Make no mistake, managing people can be very difficult work. For a manager who has difficulty recognizing and managing their own emotions as well as identifying and responding effectively to other's emotions (sometimes referred to as "emotional intelligence") – the toll that managing can take may be significant. This can impact the physical and/or mental health of the manager (or supervisor or union rep) as well as those they are trying to support. Some organizations do not screen, hire, promote or train for emotional intelligence in managers, yet hold them responsible for this task. Rather than blame managers for not being skilled in responding to emotional distress, providing training and support is important.
Even if your organization does not have the resources to invest in expensive programs, resources such as Working Through It™ can increase awareness about mental health issues for employees; and Managing Mental Health Matters provides online training that can help with performance management, recognizing mental health issues, and reasonably accommodating employees or helping with their return to work. Both of these resources are freely available on this website.
The following article is reprinted courtesy of Moods Magazine and Mental Health Works, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. It helps provide some practical strategies to managing mental health issues in the workplace, while trying to help ensure that you stay well.
Imagine you have a long-time employee who has always been reliable and productive. You have a good working relationship, you trust this individual, and he has never let you down. Suddenly, that employee begins behaving strangely. His performance has fallen off dramatically and when you approach him to raise your concerns, he responds angrily. The tension escalates in the office, until you find yourself in a shouting match with him in a staff meeting.
The technical expertise that got you promoted is of no
use in this situation
The employee's behaviour is affecting everyone in the office, and you are overwhelmed. You're behind in your work, your boss is applying pressure to meet tight deadlines and now you can't count on a valuable member of your team. You suspect that there is something serious happening with your employee, and you know the company must meet certain legal obligations if the employee is in fact experiencing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, but you're not sure what these obligations are.
The stress is impacting your performance at work and your relationships at home.
The technical expertise that got you promoted is of no use in this situation, and you have received no training to manage employees experiencing this kind of emotional distress. The tension between yourself and your employee continues to escalate, and you are constantly on guard for the next confrontation. You have begun to dread coming to work.
As one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness such as depression or anxiety at some point, this is not an uncommon scenario, and it's an example of the emotional toll that comes from managing people when you have never been provided with the training you need to respond appropriately when mental health becomes an issue.
It's no secret that managers are stressed. A United Kingdom (UK) study showed that 70% of managers feel that work-related stress has adverse effects on enjoyment of home-life and health, as well as their effectiveness at work. Yet the source of the stress is often attributed to overwork or a lack of resources, rather than the emotional fall-out that can result from managing staff.
Mary Ann Baynton, director of Mental Health Works, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, has seen managers exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, something most often associated to witnesses of violence, such as military personnel. She tells the story of a manager who, immediately after addressing a performance issue with an employee, witnessed that employee attempt suicide - and he was the first on the scene to provide medical assistance.
"The employee took medical leave, received counselling and eventually returned to work," Baynton notes. "But the manager was never even asked how he was doing. There was no recognition of the effects of trauma that he experienced." Many years later, the manager still has great stress associated with conducting performance reviews.
"Managers are often left out on their own to fend for themselves on this issue," says Baynton. "They have no idea how to support an employee with health issues, and feel as if no one is helping them. They might not even recognize that mental health is the issue. All they know is that their jobs just got a whole lot more stressful."
Most organizations promote individuals with technical expertise, not personnel experience. The result is not only a lack of skills in addressing employees' issues, but also a history of exceptional mastery of the technical aspects of the work that may result in a lack of understanding when average workers encounter performance difficulties. "The high technical achievement and the lack of personnel training can be a bad combination when it comes to managing employees with mental health issues," says Baynton.
"It may mean that managers are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that they do nothing at all until a crisis occurs."
What's so unfortunate is that doing nothing can be the worst choice. Ignoring the signs of mental health issues in a staff member often results in the escalation of the problem, worsening the illness and causing stress among the co-workers. "These conversations are difficult, but necessary," says Baynton. Through seminars developed at Mental Health Works, Baynton and other trainers help managers and employers to effectively address the issues when the mental health of employees may be a factor. She suggests a three-step process to help managers work with employees that may be experiencing a mental health issue due to illness, traumatic life events, or burn-out.
Doing nothing can be the worst choice
The first step is about paying attention to your staff, noticing any changes in their usual behaviour. "While people naturally possess a huge range of personality traits, any unusual change should cause you to take notice," Baynton says. "That means someone who has previously been an outgoing person becoming very withdrawn, but it also means someone with a quiet personality suddenly becoming flamboyant." Often it is only in retrospect that those around an individual begin to recognize the early signs that something was wrong.
It is that first conversation that causes most managers a great deal of anxiety. They are concerned with invading an employee's privacy, breaching professional protocol or opening themselves up to more personal information than they are comfortable hearing. According to Baynton, "We help increase the manager's comfort level by providing a non-judgmental, open way to discuss the changes the employee has demonstrated." Starting with a phrase like, "I've noticed that you haven't been yourself lately. I'm worried about how you're doing," may provide an opening for the employee to consider that they may be experiencing a health issue rather than just emotional upset or fatigue.
It's vital that you hear what the employee has to say in response. "That means keeping your mouth closed and your mind open," asserts Baynton. Managers are rewarded for being analytical, directive, and decisive. These important skills can create obstacles when the desired outcome is to empower an employee to access the help they need to get back on track. Managers need to understand the employee's perspective clearly before trying to engage in problem solving. This is a huge deviation from normal management practices and most managers lack this skill set.
Once you are able to accurately describe the situation from your employee's perspective, as manager, it's your job to find solutions at work. This does not include assuming the role of therapist; in fact, this type of relationship with someone over whom you have power and control is unethical. Rather, managers should focus on letting employees know about the support that is available through their organization or in the local community.
The role of the manager does include finding solutions within the work environment that enable the employee to remain a productive member of the workforce. This may include collaborative and effective performance management or it may require an accommodation process.
It's not that they don't want to deal with this,
they just don't know what to do.
Every employer has what is called a "duty to accommodate" disabilities, including mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, in the workplace. This means that there is a legal obligation to proactively eliminate employment standards, practices or requirements that discriminate against any employee on the basis of a number of criteria, including disability. The employer may be required to do everything possible to the point of undue hardship - which can be a very high standard - to meet that obligation.
These three steps provide managers with the parameters they need to meet their obligations to staff, without overstepping the boundaries necessitated by their respective roles. And the willingness is there among managers to support their staff, when they know how. According to Joseph Ricciuti, the National Group and Health Care Director of Watson Wyatt, Canada, "It's not that they don't want to deal with this, they just don't know what to do."
Watson Wyatt, an international consulting firm focused on human capital and financial management, recently conducted a survey of employers that indicated that mental health issues are their top health and productivity-related concern but few have plans to address it in their workplaces.
Stephanie Smith, Senior Manager of Employee Diversity at TD Financial Group agrees with Ricciuti. "Many managers don't know how to support their staff who are experiencing mental health issues. They need the tools and resources," she says. "They're saying, 'I want to do it, but I don't know how. Please help.'" TD Financial Group has responded by providing training from Mental Health Works for HR professionals and is leading the way in responding to these issues in their workplace. Baynton credits organizations like TD with being proactive and responding to the needs of their staff. "TD should be recognized for their leadership in this area. And there's no reason why an organization of any size can't put policies in place that make addressing mental health a priority. The outcome will be healthier staff, healthier managers and a healthier organization."
The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you. If you click on a link you may be entering a third party website not maintained or controlled in any way by Great-West Life.
Organizations that can help: